John Wooten was nine when he planted his first garden.
It was 1958, and Wooten, under the encouragement of his grandfather, took a packet of seeds and some simple gardening tools to the vacant half-acre lot behind his family’s home in Ventura County, Calif. Without quite knowing what he was doing, he emptied the contents of the seed packet into a hole in the soil. Vigilantly, he waited for something edible to sprout.
A month later, Wooten harvested his first crop: A radish. He devoured the crunchy root vegetable for breakfast.
“I was so excited,” Wooten remembers. “As soon as I saw it, I pulled up that radish and ate it first thing in the morning. It’s not that I wanted a radish for breakfast, but I grew it myself and I wanted to eat it. When you’re nine, you don’t think of waiting for dinner to have your first radish.”
Wooten, now 67, is the proprietor of Wootens’ Produce of Kauai. Along with his wife Nandanie, the organic farmer grows dozens of fruit and vegetable varieties on a coastal bluff spread over 20 acres in the shadow of Kalalea Mountain, a jagged volcanic rock known for looking like King Kong’s head in profile.
The Wootens grow all shapes and colors of edible delights, from big, bulging avocados to the rainforest holly tree that produces stimulating brews of yerba mate. At their farm, the couple vends produce without a middle a man to customers who are food-savvy enough to want dishes made from the freshest local ingredients. The Wootens also deliver their yields to farmers’ markets and local health food stores.
Another portion of the harvest gets sold to Kauai Juice Co., where it is cold pressed into delicious, nutrient-dense juices. KJC sources beet, lemon, avocado, dandelion, kale, chard and soursop from the Wootens.
“Being an organic farmer on Kauai — there is nothing better,” Wooten says. “You can eat your rewards, as well as share them, and there’s so much to learn. It’s constantly stimulating your imagination. You’re a scientist, as well as a laborer. The learning never, ever stops.”
For Wooten, organic farming started as a form of escapism. When he was in high school, Wooten avoided the Vietnam War draft by fleeing the United States to travel the world. A quarter of the way into a four-year journey through Asia and the Pacific, he found himself in Australia with an opportunity to live rent-free as the caretaker of an abandoned, 11-acre citrus and tomato farm owned by a Methodist church. The fortuitous gig marked his first productive farming experience.
“I was brought up in America on Big Macs and Taco Bell,” Wooten says. “I didn’t know anything about food and health at that point, I just knew that you went to Taco Bell and you ate tacos. I knew a little bit about natural health from learning to garden as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was handed a farm and a tractor and told to make something of it that it began to change the way I live.”
At 21, Wooten became a strict vegetarian. He also started to investigate more seriously the science and art of growing organic food.
Later, in Sri Lanka, Wooten would meet and marry his wife Nandanie before returning with her to Southern California. Stepping in to fill the dearth of organic produce options in some neighborhoods, the Wootens spent the 1980s selling mixed vegetables and dried flower arrangements at farmers markets. Eventually, the clamor of an urbanization boom drove the couple to the quiet shores of Kauai, where they purchased the old pineapple field-turned-organic farm where they still reside.
Like a child exploring a jungle, Wooten prances through his self-seeded farm, serving a loving touch to every leaf and elegant tree branch he passes. As he goes, he belts a country western ditty about a tractor and the fruits of hard manual labor.
“The song came to me over the last 30 years while I was working,” Wooten says. “I’m totally expecting that it will be a world number one hit. But promise you’ll never repeat it, because I don’t want anyone to steal it.”
Rounding a patch of wispy fennel, Wooten kneels down to massage the soil at the foot of a row of lettuce heads. As he investigates the moisture in the dirt, he explains how farming is similar to caretaking for children.“Plants are like humans,” Wooten says. “If you’re loved and appreciated and you know someone’s going to take care of you, you’re going to thrive. And if you’re neglected and people are putting horrible chemicals on you and people don’t appreciate you, they just want you to work, you won’t thrive and you won’t taste as delicious. I believe that. I believe that our customers believe that, too.”